Defining sacrament

bread-and-wineIn the previous post I noted problems with defining and classifying sacraments. In this second post on the twenty-fifth of the Anglican articles, I want to note some elements of the Eucharist. Simply through regular and central experience, this ritual act, for most worshippers, is most likely to colour the meaning of sacrament. It seems a good place to begin, and then move on to others.

The basic stuff of the Eucharist, bread and wine, are processed gifts of creation. Whether one is thinking about the created order in wheat and grapes, or the human culture that processes these gifts into food and drink, the Eucharist touches the everyday world of our existence. Moreover, the sacramental use of these gifts is appropriate to the human use of them: in worship as in daily life they are for eating and drinking. In sacraments, then divine or spiritual use is consonant with human or physical use.

The Eucharist is anchored in the story of God with his people, backgrounded against the character of the liberating God of Exodus, foregrounded in the story of the God who comes among us in Christ. Sacraments are not general rituals whose meaning derives primarily from the nature of the action, but are specific rituals whose meaning comes primarily from the narrative of God with his people, and represent that narrative as Christ-focussed.

The Eucharist, as a sign and symbol of the presence of Christ among his people, is grounded in the incarnation. God’s union with humanity is profoundly materialist in his taking of human flesh. So, at the least, the Eucharist testifies to how God continues to take the material things of the world in order to convey his spiritual presence among us.

The Eucharist is always an ecclesial act. Christians meet together, and what joins them as one Body is that they all receive the one Body. The sacramental action is directed as much at the sustenance of the church as the sustenance of the Christian. Discerning the Lord’s Body in the bread is inseparable from discerning it in the people, and vice versa.

A fully rounded picture would need to pay attention to other features, which are implicit here, not least a proper attention to the Holy Spirit, and the eschatological culmination of the narrative of God’s creation. (These two themes belong together, and remind us of the transformation to which we are called, and the astonishing nature of what is promised.) I think, however, these four are useful and central markers for exploring the question of sacraments, without tying the argument down into the specifics that divide Christians.

Of the range of actions that might be claimed as sacraments, some fit all of these criteria, others fit some of them. Baptism would seem to fit them all. (Confirmation is in all sorts of ways more problematic, partly because of its confused relationship with baptism.) The reconciliation of a penitent clearly fits (2) and (4) and it could be argued that by enacting the restoration of relationships with God through restoring human relationships goes some way towards fitting (1) and (3) as well. Anointing for healing seems to fit (2), (3) and (4) but it is less apparent that there is any natural fit between oil and healing so it doesn’t really fit (1). Holy Orders can be argued to fit (2) and (4) easily, with the story of God’s commissioning of individuals for the sake of the whole body running through the scriptures, and that probably also satisfies (3) and perhaps (1).

Ironically, perhaps, the one that fits least comfortably in many ways is marriage. I say ironically, because it is the only one to be described in Scripture as a “sacramentum / μυστήριον (mystērion)” (Eph 5:32). There are all sorts of marriages which take place as exchanges of human love which are not at all related (as far as their participants are aware) to the story of Christ, the divine use of human love, or any reference to the Church. Yet it is interesting that the author of Ephesians does a number of things to get to this point: he sees the human love of the couple as capable of reflecting the divine love of Christ (1,3), and he relates the actions of human family life to the narrative of Christ’s actions (2). So most of the features noted are present in the way he makes marriage parabolic of, even perhaps sacramental of, divine commitment.

To this point I have noted only those things which at one time or another have been put forward as sacraments. Among them some share all of these main characteristics, and others share some. But there are other actions which also participate in one or more of these characteristics, and I would suggest that the public reading of scripture is in fact a most significant one. Public reading is an act of the Church, in which the nature of scripture as addressing God’s people (rather than an individual is underlined, and the church discovers its identity as addressed by God. (4) Scripture both is a narrative, and locates God’s speaking within a narrative of how God is present with his people (2). The continuing presence of the Word of the Lord in the Church is attested by the reading of actual human words (3). Finally, the use of words is entirely appropriate to the self-communication of God (1). On this understanding it is easily possible to speak of scripture as sacrament.

What, therefore, I want to suggest, is that there is more benefit in thinking of a sacramental continuum, than there is of a neat and tidy classification designed to exclude some acts and include others. The means of grace supplied by a God who has chosen to enter his own creation will not only be many and varied, but they will not despise the many material gifts of that creation. Rather they will help us see how it remains charged with the grandeur and glory of God, and point us to an even more wonderful future.

Leave a Reply